Silver Lake restaurant Needle, from chef Ryan Wong and wife/partner Karen Dang, announced on Instagram that today, Friday, December 15, would be its last day of service. Wong, who previously worked at Ink, Trois Mec, and Otium, first opened the modern Cantonese eatery in October 2019 serving a tight but well-executed Hong Kong-style menu including pork chop in a bun, honey-glazed char siu, and pea shoots with garlic. Over the years, he expanded to popular salted egg French toast, almond jelly with seasonal fruits, and even a tasting menu meant for up to eight diners. Wong also toyed around with an outdoor yakitori setup with grilled skewers to attract diners with its billowing smoke on the sidewalk.
Given its opening date of late 2019, most of Needle’s tenure was a struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, with an immediate shift to take-out service for a few years before the small indoor dining area was able to reopen. Needle did try its best to use a small outdoor patio when al fresco dining was considered safer. Still, accolades came from numerous publications, with Needle landing on multiple Silver Lake and Chinese restaurant best-of lists. Needle was even listed at number 53 on this year’s edition of the Los Angeles Times 101 Best Restaurants.
Perhaps the strongest national endorsement came from the New York Times’s most recent 25 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles published in October 2023, with critic Tejal Rao writing, “You might order at the counter, then have food delivered to your table on paper plates, but Needle’s menu is full of glorious overachievers, tweaked in so many tiny, invisible ways to be the very best versions of themselves, from the exquisite pork chop bun to the spare but ideally textured cheung fun, tenderhearted and crispy-edged.”
The press helped bring in new customers and Dang says Needle eventually became well-supported by Silver Lake locals. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was getting new people in. We carried the stigma of being a Cantonese restaurant in Silver Lake, and many people were skeptical of us. For each mention, positive review, or accolade we got, it convinced someone new to come in, which in turn led to new regulars,” says Dang.
While Dang and Wong appreciated all of the positive press, it wasn’t enough to overcome some key challenges in the operation. First, it was difficult to retain staff, which led Wong to work in the restaurant until 3 or 4 a.m., even after working full shifts during the day, to catch up. Dang said they couldn’t compete against larger restaurant groups in terms of pay and benefits, and they found it hard to attract talent, saying, “Not many people want to cook Chinese food. There’s no prestige there.” Things became even more challenging with the birth of their son two years ago, meaning the new parents had to juggle the demands of being mom-and-pop restaurateurs while raising a baby.
Despite a wealth of Cantonese places in San Gabriel Valley, other restaurants like Downtown’s Rice Box and Mei Lin’s Nightshade have closed in recent years. (Rice Box plans to reopen in Sherman Oaks in 2024.) Pearl River Deli from chef Johnny Lee in Chinatown has had to open and close over the past few years, though it has since maintained a weekend-only service at 935 Mei Ling Way. Needle and Pearl River Deli were two of the only restaurants left in Los Angeles serving updated takes on classic Cantonese dishes.
Wong and Dang say they don’t have any immediate plans to reopen Needle, hoping to take an extended break to focus on family and their health and see where things fall. Here’s to hoping the duo can find an ideal venue for their flavorful, thoughtful versions of Cantonese food sometime in the future, especially given the following it has built over the years. “The only thing that kept us going for four years was the love we received from everyone and the knowledge that there were people out there who understood and appreciated the mission Ryan was trying to carry out with Needle,” says Dang.